Jean Renoir Triple DVD Box Set Review

The purple patch theory of creativity goes like this: however long or short someone’s creative life is, ultimately they will be judged by a certain amount of it – a few years maybe, a decade perhaps. That’s not to say that fine work isn’t done before or after that short period of time, but for one reason or another, somehow those few years’ work is a higher peak or (to change the metaphor) shines more brightly than those of other years. Before that time, an artist has something to prove, and is anxious to prove it. Afterwards, complacency may set in, or if the creative process needed the pressure of struggle then maybe success reduces that pressure. Jean Renoir had a career as a film director of nearly forty years but somehow his purple patch was the second half of the 1930s. That’s not discredit earlier or later work, but in that period Renoir directed two films which often turn up on all-time-great lists (La grande illusion and La règle du jeu) plus the short film Une partie de campagne and four other features of considerable interest. This box set gives you three films from that period at a budget price (the RRP is £29.99). As an introduction to the work of one of the cinema’s greatest directors, this box set is recommended, with a few reservations which I’ll go into in due course.

Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1935) 8/10
Amédée Lange (René Lefèvre) is a writer of pulp Westerns, working at a publisher’s. The owner, Batala (Jules Berry), steals from his employees, and seduces the women. One day he disappears and is believed dead. Left on their own, the workers make a success of the publishing house by running it as a cooperative. Then Batala, who had faked his death to avoid his creditors, returns…

Le crime de Monsieur Lange is in theme, if maybe not in style, reminiscent of the film noirs made a decade later in Hollywood. It’s told in flashback as Lange and Valentine (Florelle) arrive at a hotel on the Belgian border. Lange is recognised by other guests as his face is on wanted posters for the killing of Batala. Valentine then tells the whole story as a flashback. Renoir’s style is much more flamboyant than in later films, experimenting with “live” sound (remember, the talkies were less than a decade old), a moving camera and deep focus. The fast panning shot in the murder scene is justly famous.

Lange is in part an expression of working class solidarity. It’s also the work of an extremely talented, relatively young man showing us what he can do – which is tell us a compelling story in a remarkably concise hour and a quarter.

La grande illusion (1937) 10/10
La grande illusion is usually known by its French title (which translates as The Great Illusion), in the UK, though the Americans know it, less accurately, as Grand Illusion. It was made only two years after Lange, though in between Renoir had hardly been idle. He had contributed to the collective feature La vie est à nous, made the great though incomplete short film Une partie de campagne and an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths (Les bas-fonds). But put La grande illusion next to Lange and such an increase in style, maturity and technique in so short a time can hardly be imagined.

The story takes place during World War I. It begins with three French officers arriving at a German POW camp. The three are from different backgrounds: Captain de Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay) is an aristocrat, while Lieutemant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) comes from a family of wealthy Jewish bankers, and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is of working-class stock, having been a mechanic before the War. De Boieldieu and Maréchal escape but are reunited with Rosenthal in a fortress run by Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim).

Renoir is recognised as the cinema’s great humanist. His is a world where “everyone has his reasons”. It’s a “horizontal” view of life – in this film, the two aristocrats De Boieldieu and Von Rauffenstein strike up a friendship, de Boieldieu finding he has more in common with the enemy aristocrat than he does with the mechanic on his own side. Renoir’s directional style emphasises his themes. His camera is on the move, his long takes and deep focus (several years before Citizen Kane made the technique famous) emphasising inclusion and unity, where another director might have cut, to emphasise conflict. At a time when so many films were studio-bound, Renoir’s unforced naturalism seems very modern even sixty or more years later. Even the mixture of languages (French, German and English) in the dialogue was ahead of its time. Not to mention the film’s humour and unsentimental warmth, and some great performances. Jean Gabin was a major star of the French cinema at the time, and he belongs in a tradition of working-class toughness and sensitivity which was carried on decades later by Gérard Depardieu. Fresnay and Dalio are just as good, and Von Rauffenstein is Von Stroheim’s finest performance.

La grande illusion is a great film, and I’m not about to argue with that. However, Renoir’s techniques do require a good print on a big screen for full effect. I first saw this film on TV some twenty years ago, and I have seen it in the cinema in a print of acceptable but unspectacular quality. This is a film that you see more in each time you watch it, and also – it has to be said – does require some maturity and life-experience to appreciate it. I’m fully aware I may have been too young for this film first time round, but for whatever reason watching this film in a good print on DVD was a revelation.

La bête humaine (1938) 8/10
La bête humaine was filmed the following year, as was La Marseillaise, a minor work which nevertheless was one of Renoir’s own favourites. Adapted from Emile Zola’s novel but updated to the 1930s, the film is the story of a train driver (Jean Gabin) who falls in love with the stationmaster’s wife (Simone Simon) and they plan to kill him. This is another exercise from Renoir in the kind of “poetic fatalism” more associated with directors like Marcel Carné – see for example, Le jour se lève, which starred Gabin – and which later influenced 40s film noir. Gabin has a strong, brooding presence here, and he’s well matched by the petite Simon, who is much less delicate than she appears.

Again, Renoir’s use of location shooting gives the film considerable freshness. The film opens with a famous sequence set on Gabin’s train on the Paris to Le Havre run. There’s no dialogue, just the sound of the train – and you’re aware, only a decade after sound was introduced, what an effect naturalistic recording could have.

The three DVDs in this box set, originated by Studio Canal and distributed via Warners in the UK, are all single-layered and are encoded for Region 2 only. None of them have any extras unless you count scene access, which I don’t, and the electronic subtitles can’t be removed, at least not on my DVD player. All three discs have twenty chapter stops.

The soundtrack on each DVD is the original mono, played over two channels. In Le crime de Monsieur Lange Renoir experimented with direct sound recording, with the result that the film has always had a rough soundtrack. It has undergone some cleanup and restoration and the results are quite acceptable as long as you remember the age of the film and don’t expect twenty-first-century standards of fidelity and dynamic range. The same goes for the two other films, but they were recorded on better equipment. As I say above, the use of live sound in La bête humaine was very advanced for its day: notice how the train noise changes as it goes under bridges and through tunnels.

All the films are black and white and were filmed in Academy Ratio. Needless to say, they are given full-frame 4:3 transfers and anamorphic enhancement is neither necessary nor desirable. Lange is somewhat dark and dupey-looking, with some noticeable grain. La bête humaine is much sharper, though still a little dark. All the screengrabs in this review have been saved using PowerDVD. I have done nothing to them except to resize them to 400 pixels width and saving in JPEG format. The following two are, respectively, from Le crime de Monsieur Lange and La bête humaine.

With La grande illusion, there is of course a rival DVD on the market, namely disc #1 of the Criterion Collection, which is Region 0 NTSC. That disc’s transfer was taken from the film’s original negative and was digitally restored, the result being a benchmark for picture quality for a film of this age. Warner/StudioCanal’s version is not quite up to that level, being slightly darker and softer, but certainly acceptable for a film over sixty-five years old. Screengrabs from the same scene follow, with the Criterion version first.

The Criterion DVD certainly wins out for extras, as the Warners version has none. But especially given the presence of the other two films, I’d be recommending this as an acceptable (and cheaper) alternative to the Criterion but for one thing. The version of La grande illusion is incomplete. Three scenes are missing: the arrival of the food parcels, a brief scene showing the German officers at dinner, and most importantly the French officers at dinner, the first point in the film where their class differences are displayed. This footage runs between 11:19 and 15:28 on the Criterion disc. The footage would have begun at 10:49 on the Warner disc, the difference in timings being due to PAL speed-up. No-one seems to know why this footage is missing.

As an introduction to Renoir, this box set is very good value, and owners of the Criterion DVD may wish to buy it anyway, to get the two other films. I’d still recommend the Criterion disc for first-time buyers of La grande illusion, for its better (and complete) transfer and its extras.

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